This is how the Passover seder begins, as Jewish families all over the world prepare to re-experience their people’s historic exodus from Egypt.
Herein lies the essence of the evening and of the holiday: the national transformation from servitude to freedom. As we well know, Western culture recognizes no loftier ideal than freedom, no more contemptible degradation than slavery.
And yet, there seems to be a contradiction. When the Jewish patriarch Jacob looked with trepidation at the beginnings of exile as he prepares to lead his family down into Egypt, the Almighty reassured him with the words, “al tiroh avdi Yaakov — Do not fear, My servant Jacob.” The sages observe that only ten were called by G-d, “My servant,” and that there is no greater accolade than to be considered a servant of the Divine.
How can this be? We were servants to Pharaoh in Egypt, and on Passover we celebrate freedom. If freedom is our goal, why is My servant the highest praise with which Jacob and the other luminaries of Jewish tradition can be lauded?
The answer is really self-evident. To serve a higher goal, a higher purpose, or a higher ideal is not servitude at all. It is rather to connect with something greater than oneself and, thereby, to become greater in the process.
On the gate to Harvard Yard these words from university president Charles William Eliot were inscribed over a century ago: Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart better to serve thy country and mankind. One can only hope the message is still heeded. In the language of biblical Hebrew, there is no distinction between service and servitude except the context in which they are used. We were slaves to Pharaoh because we had no choice, because the whips and rods of Pharaoh’s taskmasters bloodied our backs and crippled our bodies if we slackened in our labor. But freedom from Pharaoh gave us the opportunity to enter freely into the service of heaven, to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Torah and its commandments in devotion to a higher purpose and in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.
But even so, Pharaoh’s army drowned in the waters of the Sea of Reeds 3,328 years ago. How are the words of the Haggadah, this year we are slaves, still relevant after so many generations?
Freedom is not a goal; it is an opportunity — and freedom misused often results in slavery. Is the chain smoker addicted to nicotine truly free? Is the alcoholic who cannot give up his drink or the workaholic who cannot relax from his business truly free? And what of the status seeker who worships designer labels and fancy cars; the teenager who worships the false god of cool; the couch potato who worships his soda and his chips and his remote control; or the anorexic who worships her skeletal reflection in the mirror and imagines herself a goddess — is any one of them truly free?
Finally, what of the cosmopolitan, the progressive, the enlightened thinker who has cast off what he believes to be the shackles of tradition in favor of the values of modern society, the rational humanist who believes himself to be the better judge of morals and ethics than the eternal transmission of his own heritage? Is he truly free, or has he not in fact allowed himself to become the unwitting slave of yet another master?
This year we have been slaves — slaves to our prejudices and biases, slaves to our own impulses and egos, slaves to the expectations of the culture that surrounds us. But Passover reminds us that we are as free as we choose to be, that we alone hold the keys to the chains that hold us back from acquiring the most precious gift of all — a closer relationship with the ultimate Master.